As Stock Car racing evolved from dirt track derby to billion dollar business, one family has linked four generations. Mark Hughes examines the Petty dynasty.
As US Air Force One touched safely down, STP Pontiac number 43 raced past it on the parallel back straight of Daytona. Its driver was in the midst of one of the most intense duels of his long career. As the aircraft’s special passenger stepped down on this Independence Day and made his way to the reception area, the race, in its closing stages, went into a yellow period. By the time the green flag signalled its resumption, the VIP had a grandstand view of one of the great last laps of motor racing history: Richard Petty’s Pontiac and Cale Yarborough’s Chevrolet trading paint, banging fenders in an anything-goes fight to the line. Petty won, for the 200th time, and 200,000 fans went delirious. A few minutes later The President was granted an audience with The King.
Where myth meets reality, where Days of Thunder meet a real story far more remarkable, where Country converges with Western, steel guitar with iron men, Confederate flag with chequered. That’s where the Pettys are found, the most charismatic racing dynasty of them all, now four generations old.
It’s a flesh-and-blood southern state legend that has grown symbiotically with NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. For a long time by far the most commercially successful branch of motorsport in the world, it could have survived without the Pettys. But not half as well.
“I was there at the first ever NASCAR Strictly Stock race,” says Richard, “as a schoolboy at Charlotte in 1949 and I’m at each race still.” In between times he racked up that amazing 200 victory tally. The first came in 1960, the last, fittingly, that day in front of Ronald Reagan at Daytona 1984. Add to that seven Winston Cup championships and seven Daytona 500 victories. No-one in any frontline racing series has even come close, nor is ever likely to.
The reason he was at Charlotte that June day of ’49 was to watch his father Lee in the inaugural event for current model American sedans, Strictly Stock, later re-named Grand National, then Winston Cup. Eleven year-old Richard and his brother Maurice watched excitedly as Lee forced his Buick Roadmaster to the front, with what became his characteristic no-prisoners style. He rolled out of that race in dramatic fashion, but soon started winning. By the time he retired he would be the most successful driver of NASCAR’s short history, with three championships and victory in the first Daytona 500. Rather better still, so far as he was concerned, was that as the series rapidly grew he found he could make a living from prize money and preparing cars for others.
A farmer’s son who’d been a road labourer, haulage contractor and eventually a garage proprietor, Lee was and at 84, still is a tough, flinty man. Unlike most of his rivals, he was never a bootlegger and didn’t much care for the social scene around the racing. He didn’t have much to say of a civil nature, and was more than ready to use his fists to defend his point of view. But Richard watched everything he did from his vantage point in the pits as an under-age crew member. “He was a smart driver,” says Richard, “and I learned a lot that stuck about taking care of your equipment and being patient, waiting until it’s time to move up.”
Learned a lot too – in between being thrown out the pits for being under-age – about the business of pit crewing. “There was a race at Highport, North Carolina in ’54,” he drawls, “a dirt track, and the windshield got dirty. Dad comes into the pit and wants it cleaned. I’m cleaning it but the pace car’s coming out and Dad’s about to go a lap down, so he takes off… with me still hanging on the windshield wiper, sprawled across the bonnet. It’s a caution flag, so the car’s running slow, but he takes me all the way round the track and comes back in the pee-hits and drops me off. I’d got the windshield clean by then. Then the officials found me an’ gone threw me out again…”
With Richard and Maurice forming the crew, the Pettys were infamous for sticking together. One of Lee’s rivals, Tiny Lund, once commented, after a run-in on the track: “Boy, when you took on the Pettys you took on the whole family.” Richard remembers the incident clearly: “Dad and him got into a little scuffle after the race,” he laughs, “they knocked each other off the scoring stand and were rolling round on the ground. So my brother and myself jumped in there and next thing mother came over with her pocket book and scattered us all.”
It was, of course, inevitable that Richard would race too. “I just fell into it,” he says. “I waited until I was 21 before I asked and Dad said, `There’s a car over there. Get it ready and you can drive it.'” It wasn’t so much a father’s indulgence, more that Lee reasoned if the boy was good he’d bring in more money than it cost to run him.
“When I started in ’58-59 I was still learning and Dad was still winning. In ’60 I got to win three races and then I raced him quite a bit.” In fact, he almost won four but after taking the flag first at Lakewood, he was overtaken on the slow-down lap by Lee, still charging flat-out for a further lap. After the race Petty Snr insisted the officials had hung out the flag a lap early and demanded they check. He was right, Richard’s win was removed and handed to Lee. Says Richard, “It was a lesson that you have to earn things, you don’t get them given.” What he’d earned, in fact, was a yearly prize money total of $35,180, well up on the previous year’s $7,630. Most went into the business, with Richard taking a salary of $100 per week and a percentage of the winnings. When he suggested he might have his salary raised. Lee told him that was fine…so long as he paid for every car he wrecked.
1960 was, in fact, a big year for Richard; his wife Lynda gave birth to their first child, Kyle.
Lee’s career came to a dramatic end the following year at Daytona. Richard had just returned from a hospital check-up, unhurt, remarkably, from an accident in which he crashed through fencing and landed in a car park below. He arrived back just in time to see Lee get shunted through the fence from behind. He was badly hurt and though he briefly returned, he called it a day soon after.
Not long after, Lee handed over the running of the entire team to Richard, with Maurice and cousin Dale Inman crewing for him. Lee took to playing golf, a pastime he pursues to this day. Interviews, however, are out. He evidently enjoys playing the role of curmudgeon. Richard: “Oh, he still comes in every once in a while, tells us how to set the car up, what we’re doing wrong, how they did it in his day.”
The Petty lineage was more than safe in Richard’s hands. As well as building up a prodigious winning record on the track, he was Mr Charisma off it, in complete contrast to his father, and was soon idol to an ever-increasing army of fans. STP car number 43 became the most widely recognised racing car of all and, out of it, Petty became an American stereotype; long lean figure draped in denim, snakeskin cowboy boots, stetson, wrap-round shades, cigar, all illuminated by a flashing white-teeth smile as wide as the Mississippi.
The King nickname was hard to argue with; he took 101 wins in the ’60s alone. Even a switch from his beloved Plymouth to GM in the late ’70s didn’t hurt his form. He didn’t retire until ’92, though the famed speed and aggression were long-gone. “I always felt that the Good Lord gave me 25 years of good luck and I was trying to stretch it to 35,” he says.”I knew I weren’t as good as what I was but I couldn’t figure why I couldn’t still win a race now and then. Finally I woke up one clay and thought, ‘you know we’re going to need to get out of here while we’ve still got everything intact.”
He’s as modest as it’s possible to be for one of such accomplishments: “I didn’t care if people didn’t think I was the best driver, just as long as I was the best winner. That’s my legacy. We had tremendous equipment but we knew we had to finish a race before we could win it and we were more interested in reliability than in speed. A lot of races we won just because we was there when the race was over. Also, though I won more races than anyone else, I lost more than anyone too. I won 200 but lost nearly 1000.”
No-one, but no-one, has a bad word to say about King Richard. Not even Leonard Wood, half of the Wood Brothers team that for years ran Petty’s fiercest rival, David Pearson. “He’s the same thing as I’ve known him since I was a little kid,” says Leonard. “He would stand there and sign autographs until everybody left. Even now when he walks through the garage area he’ll have a flock of fans following him and signs autographs just like he did 30 years ago. I don’t know who was better, him or Pearson, but they was the best of their time, with Bobby Allison riot far behind.”
Kyle says the Mr Nice Guy image wasn’t just for public consumption. “Richard Petty is exactly what you see. He was a great guy to grow up with too. We used to ride dirt bikes together and had a lot of fun.” It was a very religious upbringing. “That came particularly from my mother’s side and its something that’s stayed with me. It helped, too, that I didn’t have a celebrity upbringing. I grew up in the same town where the Pettys have always been and there Dad’s just Richard, not ‘Richard Petty’ or The King’.”
Like Richard before him, Kyle worked in the race shop, progressed to pit crewing and, at 18, drove his first race. “It’s just a natural family progression,” says Richard, “just like a farmer’s son becoming a farmer. It’s all we ever wanted to do.” Maybe. And Kyle himself says so too. But he also says, “Although I never thought about doing anything else, maybe if I’d asked myself the question, there would have been some doubt.”
“We took him to Daytona in 79,” says Richard, “where he ran a 200-mile race in what was a fairly high category and responded by winning.” Was this ‘Prince Petty’? It was a sensational debut, but today Kyle puts it down to, “beginners luck. That’s all it was. I had nowhere near enough ability for where I wanted to be. The next year we ran Winston Cup and with hindsight it was too early for the big time. But I was 19 and having a ball.”
It showed too; within NASCAR’s deep south conservatism, Kyle was the brash new kid to whom it had all been handed on a plate. When he took to ponytails and earrings they really were perplexed and when he picked up a guitar and began a country and western singing career on the side… well. Leonard Wood: “He’s er… different. I don’t know exactly how to describe Kyle Petty, but he’s different. Not in a bad way. He’s just Kyle Petty.”
With the colossus of ‘The King’ and his reputation hanging over him from the moment he stepped into a car, it’s hardly surprising Kyle should decide to do things his own way. “That stuff never bothered me,” he counters. “Maybe it bothered other people, but both my mother and father taught me just to do things as best you can and not worry about what anyone else might be doing.”
Good home-boy talk, but others see it differently. Felix Sabates, whose Sabco team ran Kyle from 1989-96, says, “I think he’d like to do real well to show his father that he can, but on his own terms I think Kyle wants his father to recognise him for what he is.”
It was in one of Wood’s cars that Kyle became the first third-generation NASCAR driver to win a race, in 1986. He’s won another seven since, finished fifth in the ’92 and ’93 standings and sat on pole for the ’93 Daytona 500. An impressive record of achievement for anyone other than Richard Petty’s son.
It’s something that perhaps has mildly disappointed Richard, who would, you sense, have loved that fairytale debut victory of Kyle’s to have been a portent for ‘King Kyle’. “Kyle has never been quite as dedicated to racing as I was,” he says. “He had a lot of talents for a lot of different things and he tried a bit of everythang and sort of raced as a sideline. Now though he’s getting a little more serious because he sees Adam coming along and he wants to set up his racing future.”
“Kyle had awful big shoes to step into,” adds Sabates, “but he didn’t really step into them. He’s a free spirit, always been his own person. They’re as different as day and night. Kyle’s more in tune with how the world is today rather than the old world of racing. You could sit down with Kyle and talk about anything – nuclear power reactors, what makes a war go off in Europe. He also does so many good things for other people, not for recognition, just because that’s him. I understand why he went back to the family team. But I miss him.”
Kyle returned to Petty Enterprises in ’97, with an eye to the future. But he didn’t get the prodigal son’s welcome one might have expected. “Really,” says Sabates, “they never have called him back properly because he’s not in the number 43 car; they run that for John Andretti. It’s almost like Kyle’s the stepchild there until they put him into number 43. It’s symbolic.”
For all the apparent southern conviviality between them, one wonders about the tensions arising from the slightly conflicting values of Richard and Kyle, wonders what it is Kyle’s getting away from when, as he says, “I sometimes just need to get a long period of time by myself and I’ll go off on a motorcycle ride for a few days.” One wonders also whether Kyle’s free-spirited ways and lack of his father’s focus had anything to do with Richard staying so long behind the wheel.
Kyle’s son Adam, at 18, is about to embark on his first full season of the Busch Series, NASCAR’s ‘junior Winston Cup’. He’s been racing since he began karting at six years old. He will run from the same Petty Enterprises compound in Level Cross, North Carolina that his great-grandfather and grandfather ran from and to where Kyle recently returned.
You sense in the grandfather an outpouring of the enthusiasm he would have loved to have expended on his son and there’s an unmistakable sub-text when Richard says, “Adam is so determined he gets mad when the race is over. That’s how much he wants to drive. The desire of Adam just sort of reminds me of me.”
“He’s a cross between my dad and me,” says Kyle. “He can be a bit hot-headed like me. But he’s got the focus and determination of my dad. We’re careful not to push him too soon, to keep from making the mistakes that I did. Plus, he’s one step removed from all that ‘King’ stuff I haven’t achieved as much as my Dad which has been maybe a curse for me but it’ll be a blessing for Adam.”
“My dad’s been so great,” says Adam. “If I’d wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor he would’ve been behind me 100%, just as he is about me racing. He’s given me all the resources and I just had to go out there and prove to him that I was dedicated enough to be a race car driver and he’s been there for me ever since.”
His dream would be to go wheel-to-wheel with his Dad in a Winston Cup race. Asked if he’s going to take a crack at his grandfather’s record, he replies, “Nobody is ever going to take that record.” So is there a Petty trait responsible for this great racing lineage? Richard’s reply is touchingly simple: “When we first started out we did it because we liked it and to make a living. We didn’t set out to set no records or win the most races. We set out to win a race, then if we didn’t win that one, go to the next one. It just happened. Then we added it all up and we had a pretty big number.”
Whereas Lee was able to walk away from the business with scarcely a backward glance, Richard, whose love of the sport is rooted in his wide-eyed childhood, has been able to do no such thing. Six years out of the car now, The King still finds even that difficult to deal with. He finds it impossible therefore to contemplate ever not being involved with the team: “When I finally walk away from Petty Enterprises, there’s no place to walk.”
Kyle, meanwhile, has fewer qualms. “When we’ve got Adam established doing what he wants to do and I’m no longer having such a blast, I’m going to swop my race helmet for a motorcycle one and take off, ride for about four or five years as far and as fast as I can. I want to ride to Europe, go from Alaska down to Florida, there’s a hundred rides I want to do, just spend time on the road and then decide what I want to do for a living.”